Zone 9 gardeners (see the beige, tan and green sections on the above map) should be well into planning your spring garden. Your area can expect the last hard freeze by February 28th. March 1st is a good goal to shoot for. The earlier you plant, the more you’ll be able to harvest before the summer heat and harsh sun make your tomatoes funky and your lettuce withered. The USDA has researched the weather patterns, and have determined the approximate date of the last hard freeze for the United States. I found this map very useful. According to the map below, northern Florida should be over the frost threat by now, but last night temperatures were in the low 30’s as far south as western Palm Beach county. So be conservative in your planting estimates, giving your area at least 2 weeks after the projected frost date to plant your tender seedlings. Look for the projected weather forecast for your area and plan accordingly. Most seedlings can handle being stored inside at night for a couple of weeks, then moved back outside for some sunlight during the day.
Seeds planted now will be ready to transfer to the garden in 6 to 8 weeks. Your seedlings that have been sheltered inside under a grow light need to be “hardened off” before you set them in your beds. Hardening off is the process by which you expose the seedlings to a couple hours of sunlight and wind a day, gradually building their tolerance for about a week to help them toughen up and get ready to face the elements. I usually move my seedling trays outside and put them on the ground against my beds on the north side at first. This keeps them out of direct sunlight, but gets them used to the wind and temperature changes. After 2 days, I move them to the east side of the beds where they get overhead and morning sun only. Once they’ve been in this moderate sun for a few days, they’re ready to transplant into the beds.
Don’t forget to draw out your garden plan. I make a separate drawing on graph paper for each bed, then put it and all the seeds or onion sets I’ll need for that bed in a gallon ziplock bag. This keeps the seeds and drawing clean and dry while I plant, and keeps everything right where I’ll need it – in the garden while I’m planting. Since every bed has its own drawing, it’s easy to organize the seeds (for things that are grown from seed like carrots and lettuce, beets and radishes) and onion sets. I put them all in my garden basket along with a dull pencil (for planting small seeds), a wooden spoon (for making the holes for the onion sets), a trowel, a small towel and a bottle of water and I have everything I need at hand when I plant.
It’s important to try to not get your seeds or sets wet until you plant them, because the remaining seeds will germinate in the packet, or at the very least be ruined for future planting. So keep a towel on hand to dry your fingers before reaching into the bag-o-seeds.